Falling words

I am a potter. I have a wheel, I throw clay, sometimes with more success than others, and I do some hand building. It’s really my only non-physical hobby. I wish I had more time for it, but such is life. For me, potting is a Zen experience. I can lose myself in the world of damp clay while I create objects out of nothing. When I first started, I tried to make every ounce of clay count. Bits and chunks would ooze from between my fingers I would strive to pat them back into place. My teacher would laugh and say, “Let what isn’t important fall away. A good pot has only essential elements. Clay remembers everything you do to it.”

That’s a lot like writing. When I first started writing novels, I tried to keep all my words. Everything was important. How else could the reader fully know the story? Took two critique sessions to get over that idea. Probably should have taken only one, but my critique partner, who was far more experienced than I, was being kind. By the second session, she realized hints were not sufficient, this newbie needed tough love, and red pencil in hand, struck through whole pages. Killing my darlings and teaching me that the story started with the action. Readers did not care what went before. It’s best not to bore them. Although I did not know it at the time, this advice follows Elmore Leonard’s famous rule, ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’

No one is ever going to accuse me of writing short. That’s not my style. I do like compound sentences. I believe that stories have multiple parts and storylines. Most of all, I believe that writing fiction mean telling a story. That takes lots of words. My writing style is a combination outliner pantser. I need to know a beginning and have an idea of an ending. Sometimes I even know four or five highlights in between. Then I have to tell myself the story. I work it through, twist it around, and let all my characters have at it. They often argue with me over who gets top billing, who dies, and who did it. Once, they knew my villain was innocent. They didn’t tell me until the second draft. Characters do not always play fair.

At about the end of page 100,000 – no, not really, but it feels that way – there’s a story in all those words, somewhere. That’s when the pottery knife comes out. I shave away the excess. All the superfluous words fall to the floor. Word by word, phrase by phrase, they fall away from the essence of the tale. All the things I had to tell myself leave the page. At the end of the third draft, I’m left with the essence of the story. Everything unnecessary has been cut away. Only the essentials remain, and I’m ready to polish.

How about you? Are you able to write tight from the start?


Author: kaitcarson

I write mysteries set in South Florida. The Hayden Kent series is set in the Florida Keys. Hayden is a SCUBA diving paralegal who keeps finding bodies. Underwater, no one can hear you scream! Catherine Swope is a Miami Realtor with a penchant for finding bodies in the darndest places. I live in an airpark in Fort Denaud, FL with my husband, five cats, and a flock of conures. And oh yes, a Piper Cherokee 6 in the hangar!

10 thoughts on “Falling words”

  1. Beautiful analogy. For me, it’s usually 120,000 words. I’m learning to write shorter. I took a pottery class in college and loved it. Most of all, I loved learning to center.


  2. Kait, I love it. No, characters do not always play fair. I wish I could write tight from the beginning. But no dice. My current WIP ballooned way over the 100k mark before I started saying, “Nope, don’t need that.” And just last night, I had to let go of one of my favorite scenes. But your pottery teacher was right. “Let what isn’t important fall away.”


  3. I am an over-writer,meaning that I usually start before the story begins and finish after it ends. So I have to do my shaving away after I have a complete draft and a better idea of what the story is about. But it’s risky, as there is a danger in cutting away the good parts, and so a trusted reader is helpful. Love the pottery analogy!


  4. I love this analogy! And these wise words from your teacher: ““Let what isn’t important fall away. A good pot has only essential elements.” Stick an L into “pot” and get plot, and, well, there you have it.

    I know I’m guilty of not being able to let go right away. I have versions of books with superfluous scenes saved on discs and flash drives. But there is something freeing about that moment when you realize you can streamline your manuscript and make it better. There’s a power in it!


  5. Hi all, sorry for the delay in responding. I was stuck in Miami. Looks like we all have the same overwriting gene! I’m so glad I’m not alone. Diane – stick in the L – PERFECT! I never equated pot and plot – just the process, but so apt.


  6. Great post! I haven’t finished a full-length novel yet, but I know the first chapter of the one I’m writing was the fourth chapter I wrote (and the other three are long gone now), so I suspect I’m following the path of Sue Star. 🙂 I’m learning to cut, but haven’t really let go–I have a folder with all those cut pieces in it, as though they’ll someday be useful for. . .well, for what I can’t imagine! I think I might put your teacher’s words on the wall above my computer, Kait.


  7. Oh Pamela and Sue, believe me, I have folders with all my darlings. And sometimes I find they are useful in later books. Characters have to continue to grow. So you even though you need to know that her favorite crayon in Kindergarten was magenta, you may not want to share that until book three when it figures into the plot somehow! I often feel like a mad scientist tossing my old chapters in the air looking for a nugget. One of the reason I love Scrivener is that all my discards can stay in the program and I can search them all instead of having to go folder by folder in Word.


  8. My problem is the opposite. I write short and edit very hard, which means I am ALWAYS ending up with fewer words than I need. Sigh.

    Love this: “Let what isn’t important fall away.” Adopting as mantra for life instantly!


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